For approximately 25 game minutes, the Chiefs’ Thursday night showdown against Oakland had the makings of a special, memorable night.
Alex Smith was dealing, Tyreek Hill could not be caught (on offense or special teams), and the defense was playing fast and aggressive. It all added up to a 18-point first-half lead, and Arrowhead Stadium was rocking.
Until it wasn’t.
The good vibes stopped at the 5:37 mark of the second quarter, when Chiefs star inside linebacker Derrick Johnson fell to the turf with a non-contact left Achilles tendon injury.
He was ruled out for the rest of the game — Chiefs coach Andy Reid said afterward that Johnson has a ruptured Achilles, an injury which is often season-ending — and the Raiders quickly mounted a momentum-turning scoring drive.
The Chiefs, however, did not fold; they got enough big plays when it mattered to pull off a 21-13 victory and seize control of the AFC West.
Still, several players in a largely-quiet locker room admitted afterward the loss of Johnson put a somber tone on what should have been the Chiefs’ biggest win of the season.
“There’s no way you can be ready for that,” said tight end Travis Kelce, who caught five passes for 101 yards — his fourth straight 100-plus yard game. “It rips your heart out, but you’ve got to find a way to play football, man.”
Reid said safety Eric Berry and outside linebacker Justin Houston played central roles in helping the Chiefs avoid a replay of their 2014 season opener, when Johnson suffered a season-ending Achilles injury and ended up losing to a team that won only two games all year.
“I felt a little bit of a letdown when it happened (Thursday),” Reid said, “but then Justin and E.B. got everybody going and reeled everybody in.
“The thing they were saying is, that would be the last thing D.J. would want — a let down.”
The Chiefs were certainly set up for that. After the Raiders scored first, courtesy of a field goal set up by a muffed punt by the Chiefs’ Hill, the Raiders had a 3-0 lead that didn’t stand very long.
On the first play of the second quarter, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith — who finished 17 of 26 for 264 yards, with a touchdown and an interception — stepped up in the pocket and uncorked a nice deep ball to Hill, who redeemed himself by splitting the coverage on a post route and catching a 36-yard touchdown.
With the Raiders committed to stopping the run —the Chiefs only mustered 65 yards on 27 carries — Smith continued to deal against the Raiders’ single-high coverages.
On the Chiefs’ next drive, Smith fired impressive downfield completions to Hill and Chris Conley to set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Charcandrick West that put the Chiefs ahead 14-3.
Hill wasn’t done yet, though. After another fruitless Raider drive, Hill — apparently energized by thousands of Chiefs fans chanting his name before a punt — broke free for a 78-yard return for a touchdown that put the Chiefs ahead 21-3.
At the time, it appeared the Chiefs were well on their way to a runaway victory. But that’s when Johnson went down, and the Raiders scored a touchdown on a 14-play, 92-yard scoring to make the halftime score 21-10.
That’s when Houston and Berry spoke, and the Chiefs regained their composure.
“Couldn’t have it, had to keep fighting,” Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe explained. “Can’t waver, can’t give up, can’t do nothing. Had to keep doing what we were doing, at the same intensity we were doing.”
The Raiders cut into the Chiefs’ lead again with a third-quarter field goal after a Smith interception, and had a chance to cut into it further after a fumble by Smith on the next drive.
But the Raiders bobbled the snap on the ensuing field-goal attempt, and the Chiefs averted disaster.
Each offense spent the rest of the game gaining yards in spurts but never enough to put points on the board. With the Raiders shifting to more two-deep coverages, the Chiefs’ offense only mustered 112 yards.
But the defense did its part, limiting Raiders quarterback Derek Carr to a miserable 17 of 41 for 117 yards.
Still, the Raiders mounted a final drive late in the fourth quarter, only to see it stall out on fourth-and-6 from the Chiefs’ 19. Cornerback Terrance Mitchell, in only his second game as a Chief, knocked away an isolation pass intended for Seth Roberts.
“He had a big play there,” Reid said of Mitchell.
The Chiefs’ rushing game struggled all night, but it came through when it mattered, as the offensive line churned out enough yards on three straight running plays for a game-winning first down.
With the win, the Chiefs took control of the AFC West race over the Raiders. Both teams are 10-3, but if they finish with the same record, the Chiefs will own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Raiders because the Chiefs swept the season series.
But afterward, the locker room seemed more solemn than it should have. Players spoke in low tones, and there wasn’t much laughter.
“For him to have put so much in for us, that’s a tough one right there — a hard pill to swallow, for him and for us,” Poe said of Johnson’s injury.
But Poe also noted that injuries like that are the nature of the league — “Nothing comes easy,” he added — and Smith said the scene in the locker room was more upbeat immediately following the win.
“This team enjoys it, for sure,” Smith said. “If you had been there when we shut the doors (of the locker room) ... this is a special group, and I think that’s part of it, being able to enjoy it.”
They also know that replacing Johnson, a four-time Pro Bowler who entered the game with 30 more combined tackles (89) on the season than the next closest Chief, won’t be easy. Second-year pros Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander will have to step up, along with third-year safety/nickel linebacker Daniel Sorensen and rookie Terrance Smith.
Help could also be on the way from either free agency or evem injured reserve, as Reid noted that former starters Josh Mauga (shoulder) or Justin March-Lillard (hand) could potentially be designated to return (as teams are allowed to do to one player per year).
Afterward, Reid grinned and tried to embrace the NFL’s ever-present “next man up” philosophy.
“We’re not going to have another D.J.,” Reid said. “But we’ll be all right.”